Durga Khote: The First Woman, Man Enough to Play a Woman On-Screen

Remembering Durga Khote, undoubtedly the boldest actress India has ever had, on her birth anniversary. 

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Durga Khote: The First Woman, Man Enough to Play a Woman On-Screen

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“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free, that your very existence is an act of rebellion”, said Albert Camus.

Did Durga Khote inspire Albert Camus? Sounds like an implausibility. But if you look at the life of Khote, you will realise how beautifully she illustrates the famous quote by the great European writer.

Durga Khote in a still from the coloured version of Mughal-e-Azam (1957)

The First Woman, Man Enough to Play a Woman On-Screen

Let’s go back to the inception of Indian cinema, which starts with Dadasaheb Phalke, who was simply a one man army. When Phalke was making Raja Harishchandra (1913), the biggest hurdle he faced was with the casting of his heroine. This was the time when putting on makeup was unthinkable for women in India.

It was at a cheap canteen in Mumbai, then Bombay, when Phalke spotted a pair of soft feminine hands serving chai. The clean shaven hands belonged to a waiter called Salunke, who finally rescued Phalke and became India’s first heroine.

And it continued for many years, men used to play women in our cinema. Finally when we got women playing heroines in our films, they were not Indians. Anglo-Indian, Jew or Parsi women were cast. At best, women from families of performers would get the job because acting was still not a respectable career for women of the soil.

At such a juncture, the arrival of Durga Khote was nothing short of a landmark. Khote was a woman who came from an elite Maharashtrian family. Educated at Cathedral High School, she had the upbringing only the crème de la crème could afford. When she joined films in 1931 with Trapped (Farebi Jaal), her debut didn’t work at the box office and in return, she gained a fair amount of notoriety, inviting ‘looks’ from society.
Durga Khote in a scene from Amar Jyoti

True to Her Name, ‘Durga’

The tide changed when V Shantaram decided to cast her in Ayodhyecha Raja, a bilingual remake of Phalke’s film in 1932. Incidentally, Khote was chosen to play Queen Taramati, the same role that Salunke played in India’s first film. The film was a big hit, and launched her career as a heroine. And suddenly, taking on the greasepaint became something women of India started considering as a career choice. Shobhna Samarth, mother of Nutan and Tanuja, grandmother of Kajol, frequently cited Khote as a strong inspiration.

As her film career started rolling with hits, Durgabai, as she was known, played women who could assert their identity in a world of men. She would often play queens or warrior princesses, suitably armoured, something her directors could easily think of given her background.

Khote’s fearless persona was not only for the camera. In 1935, the most legendary story of her career emerged. It was during a shooting in Kolhapur, where a scene involved a number of lions, real enormous lions. Though the lions were trained, one of them got out of control, and pounced on an actor, Maruti Rao, and began clawing his shoulder.

It was Khote, who dared to take on the lion, held on to its mane, and pulled it hard and fast till the trainer arrived to help. She suffered bruises on her forearm, but the whole unit was in awe of her bravery and presence of mind.

Durga Khote in a scene from Ayodhyecha Raja (1932)

Durga, the Lucky Charm

She was an active participant of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), the left leaning group of writers and intellectuals, and acted in several plays. She was also one of the earliest actors to initiate the production of short and documentary films by setting up Fact Films and later, Durga Khote Productions.

After a string of successful lead roles in films, she slowly ventured into character roles, and played Jodhabai, the spirited wife of Emperor Akbar in K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1957), a role that remains unblemished in the collective memory of India. She was the favourite actress of filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and he always considered her a lucky charm, casting her in several of his films.
Durga Khote in a scene from Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968)

In 1983 when she was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award in Indian cinema, it was proof that her countrymen haven’t forgotten her contribution, in paving the path for women to enrich our cinema.

Thus, Khote shattered a taboo into pieces, and made a change possible by just being there, just what Camus’ act of mutiny envisaged.

(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 15 September 2015. It is being republished to pay homage to iconic actress Durga Khote on her birth anniversary.)

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